Through the years, NASCAR’s All-Star race has produced some of the sport’s most dramatic moments, and almost every “Top 10” list of best races includes the race that occurred 20 years ago this month. That’s when Michael Waltrip barely squeaked the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford into the starting field, then went on to score a dramatic victory over Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace.
It was Waltrip’s first major win in the series now known as Sprint Cup, and the Wood Brothers’ most lucrative victory up to that time.
Waltrip and the Woods joined forces at the start of the 1996 season, a pairing engineered in part by the late Dale Earnhardt, who recommended the younger of the two racing Waltrip brothers to the Woods.
The signing of the contract between the two parties was also signed by Earnhardt, who was the lone witness.
The team came into the All-Star race, then known as The Winston, much like this year. Waltrip had scored four top-10 finishes in the points-paying races leading up to the All-Star race, while rookie Ryan Blaney has five top-10s so far in his first full season behind the wheel of the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion.
“When we were getting ready to start the 1996 season, I felt a lot of responsibility to do well because that was the Woods’ family car,” Waltrip said. “It wasn’t like some corporation owned it or some big business. It was a family ride, and they entrusted me with their car.”
“When we got to Charlotte, things had gone well. I was looking forward to the All-Star race.”
Since he hadn’t yet won a points-paying Cup race, Waltrip had to first run the Winston Open to earn a starting spot in the All-Star race.
“I had won it a couple of times before, and I felt good about transferring into the All-Star race,” he said.
But as the laps of that last-chance race began to wind down, he found himself struggling to hold on to fifth place, the final transfer spot to the main event.
“When we started that race our car wasn’t good at all,” Waltrip said. “It didn’t handle well. I vividly remember Johnny Benson was on my bumper chasing me down. He was driving my old Pennzoil car.”
At that point, Waltrip made a bold gamble.
“With five or six laps to go, I made a decision to go to the very bottom of turn three,” he said. “I had been sort of running in the middle in that corner, and the way my car was handling it was really tight.”
“I didn’t know what would happen if I went to the bottom, because it could have pushed and messed me up. But I did it, and I was able to make it stick, and when I came off turn four I noticed I had put a couple of car lengths on [Benson].”
“I did that again another lap and it got better. I found something battling with Johnny late in the Open that I used the rest of the night.”
Waltrip and his crew, led by brothers Len and Eddie Wood, made adjustments to the car and started the All-Star race from the rear of the field.
“I started passing people, and passed my way up to 10th,” Waltrip said. “On my way up to 10th, Eddie reminded me that I was going to have to pass back everyone we passed because they were going to invert the field.”
Waltrip took another chance and kept pushing forward rather than playing it safe, as Wood had hinted.
“I couldn’t just lay back,” he said. “I needed to know what my car would do, how it would handle if I tried to push it.”
“I kept on pushing and got 10th. In the second session I got up to fourth, and that set us up for fourth place on the final restart.”
When the green flag was displayed to start the run for the big paycheck, Dale Earnhardt jumped the start, forcing another try.
The second start was clean, and while Earnhardt and Terry Labonte battled at the head of the pack, Waltrip made an important pass, thanks to some big horsepower provided by the Wood Brothers’ engine builder Danny Glad.
“The key move I made was I was able to get around Rusty [Wallace] on the back straightaway,” Waltrip said. “I cleared him on the back straightaway and got right to the bottom in turns three and four.”
“Going into turn one, Dale got a little bit loose, and he and Terry bumped. As fast as I could, I turned left and held it on the bottom and passed them both.”
From then on it was Waltrip’s race to lose, but he never bobbled.
“I ran the best eight and a half laps of my career at that point,” he said. “I hit it perfectly and was able to hold Rusty off and win.”
What followed was a Victory Lane celebration that was especially meaningful for all the participants.
“It was huge,” he said. “My mom and dad were there. Dale came to Victory Lane to congratulate me.”
“Being in Victory Lane with the Wood Brothers was really important for me. To be able to take care of their car and win for them was a big night, and it’s still a big night.”
The win proved to have a lasting impact for all the Victory Lane participants, especially Waltrip’s parents. During the celebration, he promised to spend his share of the $211,000 paycheck to build them a home in North Carolina.
“That’s where all my money went,” he said. “I came up a little short having enough to pay for the house, so I didn’t come out too great on the money deal, but in life I did because Mom still lives in her house in Sherrills Ford, N.C.”
“She loves it and always jokes about getting to live there because I can drive a car.”
Waltrip drove for the Woods through the 1998 season and remains friends with the family today.
“The Woods are good, kind people, the whole family is,” he said. “Our time together was special. I’m thankful they let me drive their car.”
Waltrip said he now enjoys watching Blaney find success in the iconic No. 21.
“I’m happy for them,” he said. “He’s a great driver and a really great kid, and I’m thankful for the success they’re having.”
The Sprint Showdown, which will include Blaney and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion in the starting field, is set for Friday at 7:15 p.m.
If Blaney were to win one of the three segments, or win the Fan Vote, he will advance to the All-Star race, which is scheduled for 9 p.m. Saturday with TV coverage on FOX Sports 1.